Hahn’s minimal model for the Calvin cycle

As has been discussed elsewhere in this blog there are many mathematical models for the Calvin cycle of photosynthesis in the literature and it is of interest to try to understand the relations between these models. One extreme case which may be considered is to look at the simplest possible models of this system which still capture some of the essential biological features. In 1984 Brian Hahn published a model of the Calvin cycle with 19 chemical species. Like many of the models in the literature this does not include a description of photorespiration. In 1987 he extended this to a model which does include photorespiration and has 31 chemical species. Later (1991) Hahn followed the strategy indicated above, looking for simplified models. He found one two-dimensional model and one three-dimensional model. Like many models in the literature the three-dimensional model contains the fifth power of the concentration of GAP (glyceraldehyde phosphate). This arises because elementary reactions have been lumped together to give an effective reaction where five molecules of the three-carbon molecule GAP go in and three molecules of a five-carbon sugar come out. Assuming mass action kinetics for this effective reaction then gives the fifth power. In an attempt to simplify the analysis yet further Hahn replaced the fifth power by the second power in his two-dimensional model.

Sadly, Brian Hahn is no longer around to study models of photosynthesis. He was a mathematics professor at the University of Cape Town. As head of department he was asked to give an opinion on whether the position of one member of the department should be extended. He found he could not make a positive recommendation and the matter was referred to a committee. At the meeting of this committee the candidate became very aggressive and, at least partly as a consequence of this, it was decided that his position should not be extended. Some time later, in the mathematics building, the candidate beat Hahn to death. At his trial it was decided that he was mentally ill and therefore could not be convicted of murder. After less than two years he was released from confinement. From what I have read it seems that the public discussion of this case has been influenced by issues of racism: Hahn was white and the man who killed him was black.

Let me return to photosynthesis. I thought that the small models of Hahn should be subjected to detailed scrutiny. This became the project of my PhD student Hussein Obeid. Now we have written a paper on the two-dimensional model of Hahn (with quadratic nonlinearity) and the related model with the fifth power. These can be studied with and without photorespiration. Without photorespiration it turns out that there are solutions which tend to infinity at late times. These are similar to solutions previously discovered in another model of the Calvin cycle by Juan Velazquez and myself, which we called runaway solutions. The difference is that in the two-dimensional model we can see how the runaway solutions fit into the global dynamics of the system. In this case there is a unique positive steady state which is unstable. The one-dimensional stable manifold of this point divides the space into two regions. In one region all solutions tend to infinity and have the same late-time asymptotics. In the other region all solutions tend to zero. The existence of these solutions is related to the phenomenon of overload breakdown studied by Dorothea Möhring and myself in another paper. When photorespiration is added a stable steady state comes in from infinity. Convergence to the stable steady state replaces the runaway asymptotics and all solutions are bounded.

We were able to show that the dynamics for the system with the fifth power is qualitatively similar to that with the second power. The only differences are that it not possible to obtain such detailed information about the parameter ranges for which certain qualitative behaviour occurs and that it is not ruled out that non-hyperbolic behaviour might happen in exceptional cases. Hahn derives his two-dimensional model by an informal reduction of the three-dimensional one. We showed how this can be made rigorous using geometric singular perturbation theory. This allows some limited information to be obtained about the dynamics of solutions of the three-dimensional system. We hope that this paper will serve as a good foundation for later investigations of the the three- and higher dimensional models of Hahn in the future.

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